Thursday, February 5, 2009

Belated but still timely review of "Milk"

The other day, I entered Small World Coffee to have my soy latte fix, only to spot Alison Pill (the actress in ‘Milk’ who plays the lesbian Anne Kronenberg active in Harvey Milk’s campaign) relaxing with a coffee in hand and a Labyrinth bag leaning against her extended calf. I could not contain myself any longer. I had to know. I approached her, and found that she was a pleasant and charmingly awkward individual. She helped me confirm my longstanding belief: Gus Van Sant was an amazing director.

Many consider Van Sant to be the auteur of our time, versed with a distinctive perspective that caters to an esoteric, arthouse audience while still able to traverse the gap into the mainstream Hollywood arena. With the biopic ‘Milk’, the acclaimed director of Oscar winning ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘Elephant’, has delivered another tour de force.

It is not difficult to compare Van Sant’s efforts in supplying a forceful dent to the perceptions of conventional society with Harvey Milk’s own achievements. It is also inevitable, post-Prop 8, to regard the film ‘Milk’ as an invigorating stimulation for the gay community enraged by the de-evolution of human progress and acceptance in California. ‘Milk’ is thus, not only a reenactment of an individual’s life, but also a political beacon, the torch whose display of splendor does not disappoint. The awards and nominations it has garnered so far can attest to that.

The opening scenes of the film set the tone, where Harvey Milk (Sean Penn in another astounding performance) picks up Scott Smith (James Franco) in a subway station to avoid spending another birthday alone. They spend the night at Milk’s and formulate a new resolution: to move to San Francisco, make a difference in the gay community, and peel away from the confines of the closet.

‘Milk’ is very much a collaborative effort between director and ensemble performers. Penn, in a role that requires a 180 degree turn from his award-winning Byronic character in ‘Mystic River’, portrays a flamboyantly vociferous figure to perfection. Playing a distraught and neglected ‘housewife’, Franco withdraws from the comfort zone once again and absolutely delivers. Supplement this with Emile Hirsch’s ex-gigolo turned aid, and the cast is unbeatable. Even the ever chameleon-like Josh Brolin, last seen in Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’, was able to pull off a disappointingly flat character and transform it into an individual wrought with insecurities and anger.

The extensive interpolation of conventional film, Super-8 film and archival, 60s footage provides a congenial quality that reminds one of neglected memories, of lost childhood, love and encounters. One of the strongest moments in the film is when the camera zooms out of Penn and Franco locked in an intimate and passionate kiss, by a sign stating ‘we are open’ in reference to their newly opened camera shop, unafraid of outsider persecution. The moment grainy quality that seems to capture fragility and nostalgia of the time.

Ten years down the road however, this film will likely be forgotten because it falls victim to its own forceful message. It is so oversaturated with gay rights themes that after 2 hours of repetition, the characters and voice of the film become quite one-dimensional. At times it seems like we were watching a crusader movie. Even Dan White’s already underdeveloped motive for killing Milk and the Mayor George Mascone, is overshadowed by the dominant spirit of gay activism. While the film flimsily suggests White’s homosexual tendencies, it felt inadequate. Perhaps a double bill in the vein of the ‘Flag of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ is needed to expound the interesting background of White’s emotional and psychological turmoil.

Nonetheless, while it lasts, ‘Milk’ is an epic effort by the maverick Gus Van Sant, and would definitely collect many awards come Oscar day.

Paws: Four our of Five
Pros: Great acting, distinctive filmmaking and beautifully filmed scenes.
Cons: Over-saturation of gay rights theme gets tedious after 2 hours.